One Cambodian boy’s dream for a better life in Thailand is violently shattered in Buoyancy, an unflinching look at the South East Asian slave trade. Nestling documentary-like reporting within a rags-to-more-rags story, the film’s noble mission is undercut by a somewhat formulaic construction. While the intention is admirable, its emotional effect is also hampered by unrealistic character development and a truncated, Hollywood-esque finale.
It’s easy to see how the cycle of slavery starts. Our hero, Chakra (Sarm Heng), lives on a farm in Cambodia owned by his father (Sareoun Sopheara ). Tilling the paddy fields day and night, he’s given no reward for his hard work apart from a house to sleep in and some food to eat. When a football buddy tells him he can earn plenty more in Thailand, he decides to take the dangerous chance. After all, it can’t be much worse than staying at home, right? The only catch is that the first month of work must be for free. But when he is smuggled across the border and driven to Bangkok, he is put on a trawler to work as a fisherman. Quickly Chakra realizes that he’ll be working for free for much longer than a month.
Buoyancy pulls no punches in its brutal depiction of modern slavery. Men who are too tired to work are tasered to return to the nets. If they don’t respond, they’re chucked off the boat. There are no good options when it comes to surviving; either you curry the favour of the boss, losing your soul in the process, or you slowly waste away until you are no longer able to work. The fish they are catching? Food for pets. There are higher species on the food chain than these poor men.
The captain of the boat is the personification of pure evil, a man who kills and controls others just for fun. He’s up there with Amon Göth in Schindler’s List as one of the worst guys in cinema. Still, he sees something of himself in our protagonist; he too was once a slave. Buoyancy expertly shows how easily the cycle of misery can be perpetuated. With a clear eye for small details, and sparing no punches in the misery people can undergo, this is a difficult yet essential watch.
Chakra is no dummy, quickly figuring out ways to make sure he gets ahead. He still has the advantage of childhood; other men are not so interested, resigned to a fate which offers no light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a terrible world out there, and Buoyancy desperately calls out for some kind of government intervention. The prospect looks grim, considering the fishing industry is worth $6 billion to the Thai government, and any regulation will cut into profits.
Still, the strange ending (which I won’t ruin) suggests that perhaps the issue could be solved through divine intervention alone, giving what was previously a realistic tale something of a feel-good edge. While inspirational, it also seems the wrong tone for a movie focused on something so grim. A subtler, perhaps darker ending may have brought this whole thing into clarity; Buoyancy pivots to action tropes just when it should be aiming for the craw. It’s a shame, especially considering the important message the film carries.
The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.